Local non-profit Sk8skool “drops in” to aid Sarasota Skate Park

photo courtesy Sara Stovall/Catalyst

P.J. Helgeland, 15, appears to defy gravity as he rolls up on the coping of the skatepark’s flow course.

The fate of the Sarasota Skate Park hung in the balance on the night of August 25 as Mayor Kelly Kirschner stood before a group of about 65 skaters, parents and representatives from local recreation organizations. His message from the Sarasota City Commission was apologetic: the city government had decided they simply weren’t equipped to meet the needs of local skaters.

“We’re not maximizing the value, we’re not meeting your needs, we’re not responding quickly to the concerns you have,” he said.

What’s more, the city faces pressures from the severe economic downturn that currently distresses the entire nation, and the City Commission has been forced to carve a chunk out of its annual budget for the past three years, each sizing an average of 12 to 15 percent of their total resources. The 2010-2011 fiscal year is no exception. As recreational facilities and programs are technically not a municipal necessity, the Sarasota Skate Park is one primary target for drastic subsidy cuts. In order to save precious dollars, the City Commission initially considered a proposal to eliminate all of the skate park’s staff and make the facility a completely “skate-at-your-own-risk” venue. General Manager of Golf and Recreation Sue Martin showed that this measure would reduce the cost of running the park by $144,500. However, the proposition drew uneasy reactions from parents of younger skaters, not to mention from the current team of staffers.

Skate Park Supervisor Bobby Thomas has been overseeing activity at the park for the past seven years. In an interview with the Catalyst, Thomas expressed discomfort with the prospect of unmanning the park.

“You need to have some sort of presence here because there are different kinds of skateboarders, there’re rollerbladers, all different kinds of people that come here. If you don’t have someone here being the mediator in that, there will definitely be problems,” he said. He asserted the need for the city to figure out a way to pay for staff to continue to supervise the park.

The tables seemed to turn at August’s meeting when a young man in the crowd raised his hand and offered a radical counter-proposal.

“When it comes to managing the park,” he told Kirschner, “I agree: you can’t do it. Let us have it. You should let us form a council by skaters, for skaters.”

The City Commission finalized its budget on the night of Sept. 7, with no formal provisions to relinquish control of the park to another party, nor to keep the skate park staff’s jobs secure –– not even Thomas’.

“Technically what I’ve been told is that I’m laid off Sept. 29 after seven years of service to the city. ‘There’s the door’ is basically what they tell you,” Thomas said. “Right now I’m focusing on trying to figure out a way to save this, and when that happens I’ll take some time off and then figure out what I’m going to do.”

Fortunately, Thomas is not the only one with vested interest in rescuing the skate park from its current neglected and underutilized state. At the budget finalization, two men approached the City Commission with their own version of a budget for the skate park, one that they said shaves an extra $16,000 in savings off the City Commission’s original budget plan.

Dan Giguere and Mike Walling form the team that operates the local non-profit organization Sk8skool. Giguere is a physical education teacher at the Sarasota School of Arts + Sciences, and started what he believes was the nation’s first school-sponsored skateboarding team four years ago. Since then, he has seen its membership grow from about a dozen kids to a steady annual number of approximately 50 young skaters.

“If you take a look at the budget we proposed,” Giguere’s partner Walling told the City Commission on Sept. 7, “we can save you money, we can turn the skate park into what it ought to be, and I think we can do good things with it.”

Although the commission passed the budget as it stood by a 3-2 vote, the commissioners were receptive to Giguere and Walling’s proposal. Vice-Mayor Fredd “Glossie” Atkins said he was “intrigued” by their offer, and Kirschner exhorted the pair to act swiftly and start dialogue with city staff in the recreation and purchasing departments before the budget goes into action on Oct. 1. Not only does the City Commission need to determine if Sk8skool’s budget plan is realistic, but there are many legal ramifications to work through if the city were to partner up with Sk8skool to manage the park.

Walling explained to the Catalyst that Sk8skool’s top priorities are to extend the park’s hours of operation –– on weekdays it’s only open from 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ­­–– continue to keep a team of staff and actually generate some revenue in order to lower the staggeringly high admission fees: it costs skaters eight dollars per day to skate, or $100 for a year-long membership.

“Ultimately what I want to do is keep this thing open until 10, 11 o’clock at night every night and make it free. Right now, eight bucks a pop –– a lot of these kids can’t afford that. It costs me $300 a year for me and my boys to skate here. That’s a lot of money. Five years ago it didn’t seem like a lot, but now it does ­­–– now that I’m making half of what I made five years ago.”

As a non-profit organization, Sk8skool’s goals for the skate park are ambitious, to put it lightly. Walling is nevertheless confident that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

“We think we can do [the subsidy cut] between volunteers, offering camps –– Dan and I both know people in the skateboard business and we’re hoping we can get sponsorships and get some advertising going,” he said. “Originally [the city government] wanted to charge people to advertise on the fence, and a lot of people signed up, but being the city, nobody followed through with it. I work, but I’ve got time; I can do that. I’ve been running a business here in Sarasota for 20 years; I know a lot of people. And hopefully we can get it going.”

Chris Cantwell of Bradenton is an avid supporter of Sk8skool’s efforts to improve the park, and is strongly vocal about the skate community’s frustration with past dealings with the city.

“A lot of my friends are the ones who were actually involved with the city at the time before it got built. They spent a long time, close to 15 years, trying to get that park finally built,” Cantwell told the Catalyst. “What makes skateboarding a target to charge a user fee over other recreations that are happening at the same park? Nobody wants to answer that. If they’re going to make skateboarding illegal in Sarasota and provide a facility for them to skate, but then charge kids to skate it, it just seems a little bit opposite of what the intentions for that park were really set out to do.”

“I hope it works out with Dan’s non-profit,” he continued. “ … if budget gaps can enable the government to overtake a recreation that’s predominantly for youth, teenagers, and charge them taxes to make up their budgets –– that just doesn’t sit well with me.”

What exactly will happen to the operations of the Sarasota Skate Park still hangs in midair. It’s certain, however, that the Sarasota-Bradenton area contains a passionate community of skateboarders who are anxious to help the city government care for what they feel is a vital municipal service, one that the city admits it doesn’t know how to manage on their own.

As Cantwell put it, “It’s very hard for anybody who doesn’t skate to really understand what it’s about. An average person, especially the older people in government ­­–– they’re gasping at air that they really don’t know how to breathe.”

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